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The Trap

He spoke a sentence. That's all it took. Just words. And then he was arrested.

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No, what I hate is much more pernicious than the misguided glorification of an old racist rebellion against the United States and its Constitution. I'm talking about a present injustice, a present exercise of prejudice and oppression that destroys people's lives.



I have a close friend, one of my oldest friends in Richmond, who is a dedicated educator, a fellow dog and nature lover, who feels much the same way I do about Richmond's wonderful parks. He loves to take his boisterous Lab down to the river and the woods for a spirited romp. A history buff, he's particularly fond of the old canals still intact at Pumphouse Park. He can tell you about their workings, tell you stories from the days when slaves worked these canals, for though he moved to Richmond from somewhere else, he's made it his business to learn her history better than most natives.



Once, while walking his dog in the woods above Pumphouse Park, looking out at the spectacular views of the river and the railroad bridge there, he considered himself lucky to cross the path of an attractive nature lover who shared his enthusiasm for the place, who not only visited with him a good long while, but flirted as well, giving him looks whose meaning, he thought, were unmistakable.



Naturally enough, when their paths crossed again, he was delighted they took up where they left off, and he began to look forward to their meetings. After they'd met in this way three or four times, he suggested that perhaps they might go somewhere and act on their obvious, mutual attraction.



"What do you mean?" he was asked coyly.



And so he said.



He spoke a sentence. That's all it took. No touch, no threat of any kind. Just words.



And then he was arrested, for the flirtatious walker was a man, an undercover police officer pretending to be gay to harass gay men like my friend. If my friend had been a heterosexual writing his sentiments on a $100 bill and handing it to a female prostitute, he would've been charged with a misdemeanor. But because of Richmond's overzealous enforcement of the antiquated Crimes Against Nature statute, he was charged with a class-five felony. He was then sentenced to a year in jail, with all but 60 days suspended and held over his head for three more years. That's 60 days in jail for a single utterance. So much for freedom of speech. Worst of all, he's banned from Richmond City Parks for those three years, at which time he can beg the city's leave to return.



At neighborhood-association meetings I regularly attend, visiting policemen will wring their hands and lament that they lack the officers to enforce speed limits as they would like, even though cars kill more than 40,000 Americans a year. Nevertheless, the city, with my tax dollars, can pay some fellow to loiter in the woods impersonating a gay man in order to deceive, entrap, and persecute someone for speaking a sentence, even though no sentence, to my knowledge, has ever proven lethal. What a sick way to make a living.



I can't think of anything anyone could say to me that should land that person 60 days in jail, but perhaps Richmond police are more delicate than I. To be fair, these officers would probably rather be doing something more useful with their time. The cop on the beat doesn't set policy.



My friend — homeowner, taxpayer, professional — is seriously considering leaving the city. I can't blame him. Not every municipality actively persecutes gay men. Why live, work or pay taxes here? If I were banned from the city's parks, I would leave tomorrow.



For the first time, my girlfriend and I have given serious consideration to leaving Richmond ourselves. We love it here because of the miraculous and healing presence of nature, while the city administration seems determined to enforce ridiculous laws against nature, laws against our neighbors and friends. S



Dennis Danvers is a novelist who lives in and writes about Richmond. His works include "Circuit of Heaven," which was a New York Times Notable Book. His most recent book is "The Watch," published last year by Eos.





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